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West attracts most attention

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By Art Trujillo

By Art Trujillo

Las Vegas Optic

Charges of corruption, consumer concerns, prison terms and personnel turnover comprised the top news stories for 2007, as selected by the editorial staff of the Las Vegas Optic.

The top articles, in order:

1. Bilingual Bash aftermath. Officials chose to forgo more adults-only, invitation-only parties celebrating bilingualism, in light of indictments handed down against West Las Vegas Schools Superintendent Joe Baca, who retired shortly before being indicted in connection with a probe of questionable spending practices at West.

Also, indicted were bilingual director Roberta Vigil, staff member Beverly Ortega and Ralph Garcia, a school board member. Jim Abreu, who previously headed Highlands School of Education, recently replaced Baca as superintendent. Part of the state investigation centered on the purchase of expensive office furniture, flat-screen TVs and exercise equipment, made possible in part through the efforts of state Rep. Richard Vigil, husband to Roberta Vigil.

In February, political newcomers Caroline Lopez and Kenny Lujan handily defeated Michael Vigil and Patrick Marquez respectively; both Vigil and Marquez had staunchly defended a controversial nearly $10,000 invitation-only party that, in part, led to the indictments.

2. Chilling experience. An investigation revealed that Las Vegans, using the same lines and suppliers, were being billed at considerably higher rates than neighboring communities. A complex formula, understood by few, has helped to determine the final bills. A backlash featured the printing of a form letter in the Optic, in which signers were able to request rebates. The effort, headed by local DJ Charli Otero, even caused some residents to present the letter to City Hall in hopes of a rebate.

The soaring city natural gas rates, doubling in some cases, led to the disconnection of service to 321 homes during some of the coldest months of the year. After a consumer backlash, District Attorney Richard Flores and State Auditor Hector Balderas launched an investigation into whether the city was following its ordinance that governs the setting of natural gas rates. The results of the probe are expected to be released soon.

3. Treasurer’s fate. Popular State Treasurer Robert Vigil, a member of a large Valley family that includes state Rep. Richard Vigil and former West Las Vegas board member Michael Vigil, reported to an out-of-state prison in 2007 to begin serving a 37-month term for corruption.

4. DWI still a problem. In late 2006, Dana Papst, driving while intoxicated, traveled against traffic on Interstate 25 near Santa Fe, killing himself and five members of the Gonzales-Collins family of Las Vegas.

The only survivor was Arissa Garcia. Family patriarch Ray Collins made numerous appeals to members and committees of the Legislature, urging reforms in the way alcohol is advertised. A lawsuit has been filed against the convenience store where Papst obtained the beer and the airline that served Papst alcohol during his flight a few hours before the fatality. Collins has noted the power of the liquor lobby, expressing concern that private individuals lack the financial clout of liquor distributors.

5. Luna lineups. One permanent president and two interims have filled the top position in a relatively short time at Luna Community College, with the Board of Trustees on the verge of making yet another appointment. President Leroy “Huero” Sanchez, who left his position suddenly, was replaced by Gilbert Sena, who was later placed on leave. Sigfredo Maestas, longtime former president of Northern New Mexico College, stepped in as interim.

The advertisement for applicants for the presidency lacked a deadline. Accordingly, the board pared down the list of applicants and conducted interviews for the finalists. Current East Las Vegas schools Superintendent and state Sen. Pete Campos submitted his application late and missed the interviews by the public.

Nevertheless, he became the fifth finalist, as one member of the final five withdrew.

6. Highlands quest for stability. A tumultuous era under Manny Aragon was characterized by disgruntled faculty, concerns over the lack of due process and the perception by some of high-handedness in Aragon’s management style. One of the lowlights of the presidency was drawing censure from the American Association of University Professors. The censure was lifted in 2007.

In early 2007, Highlands selected James Fries, former president of Santa Fe Community College, as president.

7. A violent year. A violent incident resulted in the death of Jose Apodaca, a three-time veteran who was dragged for several blocks by a speeding car whose occupants allegedly had tried to rob the 84-year-old. That was one of five homicides in Las Vegas in 2007. David Seiler was found dead in a small sports car along Lopez Street in May; then John Paul Gonzales was found dead after a shooting on New Mexico Avenue in June. On Dec. 21, two Highlands students, Damian Lucero-Ortiz and Stephanie Dimas, were killed at their residence outside town.

8. Roanhaus in the Cowboy saddle. Officials are hopeful the recent acquisition of Chad Roanhaus will turn Highlands’ fortunes around. Roanhaus, a former star starter at Highlands, piloted the Robertson High School Cardinals to two straight state class AAA championships, and this year, the Redbirds finished second. The Cowboy football program has struggled since the departure of Carl Ferrill, the winningest coach in recent years. As with many small-college grid programs, one-year stints for head coaches rarely give the coach enough time to recruit his own staff and players, and the win-loss percentages show it.

9. Henry Sanchez’s decision. The popular Mayor Henry Sanchez, who most people call “Coach,” comes from Bernalillo, where he spent several successful years as head basketball coach. He later joined Highlands University as head coach, retired and entered politics. In a KFUN radio program, “What’s Cooking at City Hall?” Sanchez announced he would not seek a fourth term as mayor, citing criticism from the media as a factor. Sanchez has defended City Council members and staff, arguing that an unusually cold winter last year exacerbated conditions, causing huge jumps in utility bills.

10. Police turbulence. In an effort for more pay, Las Vegas police officers became vocal, arguing that the Meadow City was becoming a mere training ground for police poised to cash in their training chits for higher-paying jobs in places like Santa Fe and Rio Rancho. Gary Gold was named chief in 2007.

other major stories

In addition to the standard Top 10, the editorial staff selected a handful of also-ran stories, listed here in no particular order:

• A Luna Community College leadership institute, named after longtime Senate President Pro Tem Ben Altamirano, provided hefty stipends to a host of Luna employees, some of whom gave few services rendered for the cash they received.

• A crowded field vied for leadership positions on the Luna Board of Trustees. It included challengers Doris Velarde, Casey Benavidez, Georgetta Cummings, Ray Collins and Gary Ludi. Incumbents Abelino Montoya, Levi Alcon and Ambrose Castellano won handily.

• Luna attorney Jesus Lopez, who headed the search committee to select a new president, resigned, charging that some members of the Board of Trustees had already made up their minds on who should be hired.

• Despite strong opposition from Alta Vista Regional Hospital, employees voted strongly in favor of unionizing the privately owned facility. Since them, the hospital has tried to set up procedural roadblocks.

• Convinced it’s impossible to concentrate when talking on a cell phone while driving, the majority of the City Council voted for a ban.

• McAllister Lake, one of two popular recreation spots in the area, didn’t receive its allotment of water this year, due to a bureaucratic “oversight.” As a result, experts say, it will take

several years, under optimum conditions, to restore the lake to its previous condition.

• El Conquistador, the nine-story dormitory that was for almost four decades the tallest building in northern New Mexico, came down in 2007. Because the residence hall no longer met code and improvements would have been costly, Highlands regents agreed to have the building razed. There was discussion of having the building imploded — having it blown in rather than up or out — with a drawing to select the person to pull the handle. Because of concerns over damage to the neighborhood, it was decided instead to bring down El Conquistador a floor at a time.

• Tips from the public helped expose the existence of two dumps containing improperly disposed hazardous waste. The waste, mostly in the form of computers, printers and other electronic hardware, had been disposed of by Highlands University, near the Gallinas River. A short time later, another dump just west of Luna Community College was located. That dump contained electronic hardware and cans of

solvents and other industrial materials.

• Former Robertson High School student, Eloy Trujillo drew a 7 1/2-year prison term for the shooting death of Anthony Maes, who Trujillo’s attorney said bullied Trujillo often. But because of a procedural issue, the judge later decided he would have to be resentenced.

• Martha Johnsen, principal at the Family Partnership, jumped into the race for state representative, a slot currently held by Richard Vigil. And former San Miguel County Commission Chairman LeRoy Garcia said he was looking at running for the state Senate seat held by Pete Campos, D-Las Vegas.

• Members of Mora-San Miguel Electric Cooperative voted at the annual meeting in the summer to reduce the Board of Trustees from 11 members to five. However, trustees wanted to reserve that decision by holding an election during the middle of a business day in December. Many members cried foul, saying the trustees were ignoring their will and setting an election for an inconvenient time. In a landslide, members rejected the trustees’ effort.

• “No Country for Old Men,” which was largely filmed in Las Vegas, had its New Mexico debut at the Serf Theatre.

Top stories in previous years

2004

1. Senate Democratic leader Manny Aragon becomes Highlands president.

2. Democratic presidential candidates, including John Kerry, visit Las Vegas.

3. Las Vegans accustomed to drought get more precipitation than usual.

2005

1. Most voters decide to reduce the City Council’s size, shaking the political leadership.

2. Highlands President Manny Aragon faces faculty rebellion after denial of tenure and firings.

3. State Treasurer Robert Vigil, who is from Ribera, is indicted on corruption charges.

2006

1. Five members of the Collins-Gonzales family die in a crash with a drunken-driver.

2. A nearly $10,000 West Las Vegas party gets the district in hot water with the state.

3. Highlands University fires Manny Aragon as president.